Friday, January 28, 2011

Do we need to experience something to write about it?

One of the concepts that continually haunts the social scientist working on issues of social justice is the apparent disconnect between the issues he/she works on and the lived experiences of oppression and disempowerment that are often tied to these issues. So a question that naturally arises amidst this power imbalance is one of authenticity. How does one find the adequate language to talk about say poverty and hunger without having experienced poverty and hunger herself/himself? What credibility or meaningful place do I occupy as a scholar to speak about issues of poverty when my lived experiences have been situated amidst a privileged middle class upbringing?

How can I talk about hunger in my work when I have not experieced hunger myself? I don't think there is a simple answer to this question.

The academic response typically to questions such as this is one of defensiveness. Answers typically verge on responses such as "One does not really need to experience hunger to theorize about it." However, it is easy to deconstruct such a response as defensiveness because of the sheer lack of warrants and backing in a heusritic response that asks the reader to simply trust the academic because he claims that he "knows" and because he has a highly decorated PhD that supposedly bolsters this claim.

When this question of authenticity is pushed further, one realizes that there are some really important concepts embedded in the notion of authenticity as experience. I believe that as scholars we have to be willing to question our own privileges and come face-to-face with the vulnerability of knowing that our privilege of being academics might sometimes actually get in the way rather than equipping us with some forms of expertise about the subject. In the absence of really experiencing poverty in order to be able to write about, I feel that I need to begin with empathy, sincerity, and a commitment to acknowledging that there are things I don't know/will not know. I can begin with acknowledging that my elitist education in theories and methods can sometime be the very impediment to knowing and to developing a sense of empathy with the "participants" in my field work. I can also begin with the humility that I have much more to learn from the people who have historically been scripted as research subjects of social scientific studies. None of these attitudes can guarantee or replace authenticity as experience, and yet they can provide us with tools for starting to understand the ways in which our own privileges stand in the way of listening to the voices of those who have often been silenced by us.

1 comment:

Abigail Borron said...

Mohan, I am intrigued by your post and, philosophically speaking, to study even privileged middle class social issues would most often require an empathetic approach. Take, for instance, a female social scientist who designs a research project around reoccurring miscarriages. If she has two healthy children and has never before experienced any form of pregnancy complications, she sits in the same boat as you do studying poverty and hunger. While you could potentially submit yourself to hunger and poverty in the name of research for a period of time, I doubt IRB would allow her to voluntarily experience a miscarriage. Of course, that should not stop her from engaging with an audience that she feels strongly attached to.

Through our group discussions over the last few weeks, I've begun to consider the notion that many researchers can stake a claim in social sciences, but not all of them can trudge through the depth and breadth of human nature with the empathy needed to be successful.

In some ways, this reminds me of what my mother always used to tell me as a child when it came to making good decisions... if you're feeling bothered by it, then you've set yourself on the right track to making a good decision.